Mehmet Güleryüz, untitled, 1989. Performance view, Seretonin I, Feshane building, Istanbul, 1989. From “The 90s Onstage.”

Mehmet Güleryüz, untitled, 1989. Performance view, Seretonin I, Feshane building, Istanbul, 1989. From “The 90s Onstage.”

“The 90s Onstage”

The 1990s were a tumultuous period in Turkey: A financial crisis in 1994 led to the devaluation of the lira, scores of Kurds were forcibly disappeared, and a public life that favored individualism, entrepreneurship, and self-marketing came to the fore. “The 90s Onstage” excavates remnants from this Machiavellian society in meltdown via music videos such as Her Gece (Every Night), 1995, which made its singer, Mirkelam, an overnight sensation; freewheeling television shows such as Late Night Workout with Yasemin, 1992, starring a swimsuit-clad gymnast; and other spectacles broadcast nationally by a proliferation of private channels. Unfortunately, this exhibition approaches these pop-cultural phenomena nostalgically: A whole floor, furnished with fancy couches and auditorium seats, is mainly devoted to trash TV. The section’s blandness is exacerbated by a lack of critical framing or accompanying printed material (for environmental reasons, Salt refrains from publishing exhibition booklets) and risks reducing the whole enterprise to a YouTube playlist.

The show, as mercurial as the 1990s themselves, shines in its salvation of several of the era’s quixotic figures. A fascinating section on the “Serotonin Exhibitions”—a pair of art festivals organized by a group of independent artists in a former fez factory in 1989 and in a gashouse in 1992—conveys the period’s interdisciplinary texture. These week-long shows comprised installations and Happenings (forms that defined contemporary Turkish art in the 1990s) and showcased leading artists: One video of an untitled 1989 performance captures the moment Mehmet Güleryüz entered the factory on a camel; another clip from that year shows artist Komet in a cage, perusing a dictionary. Featuring such footage as well as newspaper clippings and photographs documenting the events, this section re-creates, in miniature scale, a boldly conceived artistic framework. Seretonin’s second edition comprised “live events in a living space” and centered on artworks made of coal, fire, and gas. Presenting meticulous archival research, the section dedicated to this iteration focuses on the synergetic relationships between artists, audience, and workers at the gashouse—evident, for instance, in Nur Akalın’s Tavşan Kaç (Run with the Hare), 1992, which compiles interviews with gas workers and footage of them working. Simon Telvi’s Buzz, 1992, observes three women as they stand on coal dregs and carry blocks of ice that slowly melt.

A Trojan Story, 1993, a work of mass theater featuring inhabitants of Çanakkale—the small Anatolian city famed as the archaeological site of Troy—is also the product of collaboration across sectors of society. Working with a professional crew of musicians, designers, singers, dancers, and actors under the direction of Hüseyin Katırcıoğlu, one of the pioneers of Turkish performance art, residents of Çanakkale created costumes, accessories, and masks for the production. Instead of featuring locals as extras, A Trojan Story made them active participants in narrating a regional myth themed around their own folklore. This form of collaborative research was central to the Theater Research Laboratory and other progressive organizations of the time, which the show subtly commemorates.

This ethos was also evident on a smaller scale in Uyku (Sleep), 1997, a performance by photographer and translator Orhan Cem Çetin, who lay on a mattress in the garden of Istanbul’s Imperial Mint building in an eighty-five-hour performance to illustrate the sleepless nights required to meet his translation deadlines. (An actress occasionally slapped Çetin’s face to keep him awake.) Such tactics continued in the new millennium, as in Halil Altındere’s Miss Turkey, 2005: Screened above a yellow catwalk stage in the Forum, Salt’s entry space, the video follows actors and artists as various individuals carry a volleyball net through the streets of Istanbul to play a game between traffic lights, ride a bike on Istiklal Avenue barefoot, and engage with pedestrians. In one scene, an actor in a balaclava steals a replica of Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of Mehmed II, 1480, which was displayed in Istanbul in December 1999 to celebrate the seventh centenary of the Ottoman Empire; the ensuing effort to recover the painting, staged by actors in police outfits, amazes passersby. Altındere’s wry carnivalesque performance sums up and embodies Turkey in the 1990s: Placing artists onstage, the era left a fragmented, entrepreneurial legacy that individual practitioners, much more than institutions, have inherited.